If it is one thing I have always found odd, it is that societies in fantasies don’t typically get the “dystopian” label, despite how close they may shear to the concept. After all, all medieval-styled societies were more or less dystopian already, right? Oppressed peasants complaining about the violence inherent in the system and all that? But there is an example of a fantasy society in particular that I think exemplifies the dystopia sub-genre while kind of hiding it, and that is the Seanchan Empire from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
So, what is it that makes Seanchan dystopian? Well, it’s complex. It is, without a doubt, a horrible society from the first time we are introduced to it as a rampaging, mysterious army that has come out of nowhere, using strange monsters for war, and enslaving any woman who can use the One Power. That they do this in very short order to one of the female leads of the story makes them all the more purely evil, right? Yeah, about that.
Now, I’m sure I’m going to get a fair amount of flak for the following assertion, but...Seanchan isn’t all that bad, in context. Now, Robert Jordan was pretty clear on what he thought about moral relativism, which is to say he despised any concept that could attempt to justify what he viewed as evil. Yet, his writing is fairly fraught with plenty of gray in his world of black and white, and I think a huge part of the Seanchan Empire is to make us realize that, even with a concept of absolute good and evil, it is hard to classify anything of this mortal coil that way.
So, Seanchan isn’t that evil, I say? Yeah. Okay, they have slavery and treat magic users even worse than slaves. Let us look at the contexts for these. First, slavery: well, this is pretty well dark and evil, except that in several instances, we are shown that Seanchan slaves still have social mobility. Not to buy their freedom—although I cannot recall offhand if it is ever mentioned that slaves could become free men in the Seanchan social structure—but there are generals who are slaves that command more respect and bearing than some of the lower nobles. Conversely, it seems like once a person becomes basic da’covale, that is to say, the servants that wear nearly transparent robes, there isn’t necessarily that much of a chance for said mobility.
This kind of leads into the social structure of the Seanchan in general. While no single nation in The Wheel of Time exactly translates to a nation in the real world, there are obviously some strong references to the rigid social structures of feudal Japan and China in our “Empire from beyond the vast western sea.” Lots of bowing, lots of concern over exactly what level of familiarity a person is allowed to use to another, all the way up from the meanest peasant to the Empress herself (may she live forever). The more European and American main characters find the way people must prostrate themselves on the floors before nobility and bow so ridiculously low in general an affront, but we must remember we are always viewing the Seanchan through our characters eyes in these instances.
When we finally get to see through a Seanchan’s eyes, there isn’t some constant sense of dread about wondering if they used the right level of deference to a superior. It is second nature, and does not really inconvenience their daily routines. While the Seanchan are making plenty of slaves of the Westlanders they are conquering, a good part of this seems to come from culture shock and the general pig-headedness of any culture dealing with another. People natively from Seanchan have to majorly break the rules they have had ingrained in them from birth to end up in sheer, white robes.
Then, of course, there is the way they treat the women who channel. Yes, degrading a sentient human to a pack animal that just happens to be able to talk is deplorable, but I think this is honestly a very hard thing to truly analyze from our sofas. After all, we have never in the history of humanity had to deal with a small segment of our population that had god-like power compared to the rest of us. Various mediums have tried in various ways to use superhumans or magic users as metaphors for racism or sexism or the like, but I think Jordan does a wonderful job of showing a working society dealing with the issue.
After all, Seanchan as a nation had been terrorized by the Aes Sedai that had been left over from the apocalyptic breaking of the world, something they were marginally responsible for anyway. From what information we have been given, the Aes Sedai had been waging open warfare on each other in Seanchan for two thousand years until the current ruling faction sailed over a thousand years prior to the story. They then turned on each other, one of them created a means for the Aes Sedai to be controlled, and the conquerors took matters into their own hands. They could not trust the channelers and they had no other means of protecting themselves from the channelers who would otherwise just dominate them with their natural-born ability. No, I’m not saying that chattel-slavery is the way to deal with it ideally, but they made the best of a bad situation.
So, all this comes down to why I think Seanchan really deserves to be examined as a dystopia in general. I once heard a “working definition” of a dystopia at a convention that I really liked. It went something along the lines of “A utopia is where everyone is happy. A dystopia is a utopia where someone is miserable.” See, it has been observed many times in the series that the common people don’t mind Seanchan rule. In fact, they kind of like it. The Seanchan offer them better laws and enforcement of said laws, even if it is by certain draconian measures. The Seanchan for the most part don’t demand much change of their subjects except for the adherence to egalitarian laws, and that anyone who can use the One Power be handed over so they do not become a threat. Even becoming a regular slave doesn’t doom you to a horrible life, per se, as if you manage to prove yourself to still be worth something, you could become a respected member of the military or a high ranking servant to the nobility. But, honestly, for the Average Joe, it is best just to tug the forelock like they always have and enjoy the better rule of law. So, 96% of the population lives in remarkable well ordered peace and is free to pursue the lives they want, 1% deals with the politicking, which is vicious and cut-throat no matter what country you are in, and 3% is either instantly put to death (the male channelers, which is what happens in all societies), or enslaved in a horrible way.
Yeah, sounds pretty dystopian to me, and a good one at that. See, the best dystopia, in my opinion, is one that, if you are an average person on the inside, you might actually think you are in a near utopia instead. So, as much as I feel kind of dirty saying, but if I was to be a random person in any particular nation, I think Seanchan might actually be my number one pick. Scary, isn’t it?
Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and thinks the only downside to being an average Seanchan citizen would be the Texan accent. He is currently writing a free-to-read, illustrated steampunk web serial called The Tijervyn Chronicles. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.